Maximizing the Adult Resources in Our Classrooms

Over the summer, a few of us at TWT all received questions about how to manage extra adults in the classroom. Today and tomorrow, Deb and I have begun our own little mini-series addressing this issue. Tomorrow, Deb will share important ways to make the classroom a place for everyone, emphasizing communication and management strategies. Extra adults are a mixed blessing. Sometimes they jump right in and become an integral part of a classroom with minimal training or directions. On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve seen extra adults who need as much or more attention than the children to whom they’re assigned. Mostly, they fall somewhere in between these two extremes. When I work in classrooms around our districts, I usually see extra adults in the classroom doing one of two things:

  1. Sitting and listening to the lesson in much the same way as the students
  2. Sitting side by side with a student giving step by step instructions and directions on the writing–doing way more teaching to the writing as opposed to teaching the writer

So what to do? How can we maximize the amazing resource of extra adults in the classroom? I find that dealing with a belief set is a key strategy for dealing with anyone, regardless of the situation. When people understand why we are asking them to do something, they are much more likely to engage in learning and to invest in new practices and changes.

  • Teach the adults in your classroom about the concept of the Zone of Proximal Development, and reference this concept a lot

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The premise of the ZPD is that all of us learn best when we have tasks that are just a little bit beyond our independent level. If tasks are much harder than we can possibly do on our own, then we are much less likely to make growth. Running is an excellent analogy for many people. If I’m out of shape, and you ask me to train to run a mile with a plan that involves a couple weeks of short jogs, I’m likely to believe it’s possible. However, if the end task is a marathon, even with the same training plan, I’m probably going to give up because it’s way too far away for me to believe I can ever achieve it. Also, when adults understand and appreciate the importance of the ZPD, they will understand better how to differentiate on their own and be more willing to let go of what they think students on their caseload should be doing and more focused on what those students could be doing, a really important distinction.

  • Once they are on board with the belief in ZPD, they will embrace differentiation. Have tools for differentiation readily available for all learners, adults included, to access and use. Here are a few to introduce and emphasize all the time:

A series of charts: I have designed sets for the different genres of writing that follow the progression of the Common Core State Standards. These are easier to create than you’d think because it just involves sitting with the standards and designing anchor charts for the two grade levels below the one you’re teaching.  It will help both the extra adults and the struggling students to see the learning progression and work toward mastery of skills within their own ZPDs.

Checklists: The checklists created by Teachers College and published by Heinemann Press within the Units of Study and Writing Pathways are excellent. Cut them out and make goal cards or white out the grade levels. Regardless of how you present them, make sure students have skills that are within their reach.

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Mentor text sets of different reading levels: I can teach leads for opinion writing from NY Times Op Ed pieces, but I can also teach leads for opinion writing from One Word From Sophia or The Day the Crayons Quit. I can teach using conversation in narrative writing with Henry and Mudge or with The Brothers Karamazov. Creating mentor text collections around a single teaching point with a variety of lexile levels is time well spent!

Create other jobs for adults in your classroom with tools in place to help them do them. Some specific ones that are fairly simple to set up include:

Conferring: Investing time in teaching other adults who work in your room is time well spent! Teach them the format of a conference–consider even giving them cards, forms, or templates to fill out in order to help them stay true to a compliment and a single teaching point. When I worked in classrooms as a special education teacher, I actually used mailing labels so that I could hand them to the regular education teacher and s/he could stick them right into the records s/he kept.

Status of the class: There are many ways to take a status of the class, but it basically involves asking students what they are working on. If you set up a form for this and teach all adults in your classroom how to fill it out, this is time that’s better spent teaching students. 

Engagement inventories: One of the most important sources of information about students in your classroom involves what they do–what they really do–during writing workshop. Again, if you develop an engagement inventory with the other adults who work with you and you explain the type of information that is helpful to know about work habits, having other adults in the room take 15 minute engagement inventories every now and them will give you important information about how much time students are really spending writing as opposed to staring out the window, sharpening their pencils, going to the bathroom, chatting, erasing– When students write more, they become stronger writers, and engagement inventories are powerful tools and important ways to use adults in the classroom. 

Here is one you are welcome to use:

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Having extra adults in the room has pros and cons. On the one hand, teachers can’t always get to all learners, and extra adults can make that happen. However, extra adults can also lead to increased dependence. Sometimes extra adults remind me of swimming bubbles or floaties. They are great if we want to turn our backs for a second or two, but children won’t learn to swim without them. Children are actually more and more at risk the longer they use those flotation devices, and in great danger if they fall into water without them. Our goal for our developing swimmers revolves around using less and less of a flotation device.

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A parallel goal exists for our developing writers. One of the greatest gifts we can give our young writers, regardless of their level, are tools to be independent in much the same way we teach young children to become strong swimmers who aren’t afraid to jump into the deep end. When we develop that mindset in all classroom learners, adults and children alike, we empower everyone to learn at high levels.